Sandy Hook. Aurora. Columbine. It’s appalling, but one way to achieve fame in America is through acts of infamy.
What if that weren’t so?
Today’s media might profit by studying an example from ancient Greece on how to keep evildoers from becoming instant celebrities.
The precedent sprang from a heinous crime in 356 BC that occurred in Ephesus, a magnificent city in what is now Turkey. The city’s crowning glory was an Ionic temple to the Ephesian version of the Greek goddess Artemis. Then 200 years old, the Artemisium was an exquisite wilderness of columns, art galleries and sculptured altars, acclaimed as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Although the temple, all 45,000 square feet of it, drew many thousands of visitors, one obscure citizen felt no civic pride. After obsessing for years over what the world owed him, this disturbed young man decided to make a name for himself in the darkest way he could devise. One sultry night, he headed to the Artemisium and set it ablaze.
We might scoff at the notion of marble structures being destroyed by fire, but Greek temple interiors contained seasoned wood from main beams to floors, along with countless flammable art objects. Because temples were open and staffed night and day, they relied on firewood and olive oil for heat and light. For convenience, combustible materials were stored on site.
As the wooden interior of the building and its vast wooden roof burned, the young arsonist exulted, watching the 60-foot marble columns begin to crumble when fiery temperatures rose to as high as 1,000 degrees. Firefighting technology being in its infancy, the blaze continued unchecked, claiming an unknown number of human victims as well.
The perpetrator made no attempt to escape. When arrested, he boasted about his infamous act, saying he did it to make his name live forever. Local authorities promptly sentenced the young man and executed him. To keep him from profiting by his crime in the way he most ardently desired — and to discourage imitators — the Ephesians passed a law. It imposed the death penalty on anyone who ever mentioned that criminal by name again.
Although the millions of people who lived nearly 2,400 years ago lacked what we would call mass media or instant long-distance communication, they certainly communicated — and faster than you would think.
Despite the age-old tendency of humans to gossip, that long-ago name ban had remarkable staying power. With one tacky exception, historians and writers, both Greek and Roman, retold the story for centuries without naming the criminal at its heart. (And you won’t catch me mentioning his name either.) Furthermore, the Ephesians rebuilt their glorious temple, which remained a world wonder for an additional 600 years.
Marginalized men with murderous plans have been around for millenniums, but we have forgotten how to take away what they most prize, the “I’ll show ‘em” notoriety that enables evildoers to win immortality. We have surrendered to shabbier motives, such as selling newspapers or winning TV news ratings.
Would such a ban work in today’s world, given our hungry media cycles, our insistence on free speech even when it harms? Maybe not. But infamy should not be rewarded with headlines. Or personal recognition.
Long-ago cultures — Egyptian, Greek and Roman — also made it a point to censure certain individuals by inflicting a similar punishment. In Latin, it was called damnatio memoriae: to castigate by erasing one’s name and deeds from public memory. In our time, damning killers in such a way is surely worth a try.
Vicki Leon is the author, most recently, of the forthcoming “The Joy of Sexus: Lust, Love, & Longing in the Ancient World.”